Today’s sorta news that the US may be sending Abrams to Ukraine in order to convince Germany to allow other countries to send Leopards is great, sorta. The good news is that Ukraine will be getting what sounds to be roughly an armored brigade worth of Leopards and some unknown number of Abrams. Add to that the squadron of British Challengers and Ukraine quickly goes from the problem of no MBT (Main battle Tank) to the problem of too many. Thankfully too many is a better problem than none, but still a problem.
The main problem now is that Ukraine will be getting 3 different MBT systems to support. Main Battle Tanks are all highly complicated machines which require a lot of upkeep to keep running. Having three different ones means those complications will increase as Ukraine may struggle to get the right parts, consumables, and ammo to the correct set of tanks. All of whom will hopefully be moving quickly East (or South) liberating parts of Ukraine. Logistics on the move is always more difficult than logistics with static positions. While planners do their best to anticipate where units will be, the fog of war and enemy resistance make supply deliveries a moving target.
Complicating things EVEN further, is that should these tank systems be up and running at roughly the same time, standard military practice is to concentrate your forces at the point of attack. So if Ukraine wants to use all three at once they either need multiple points of attack or risk getting the supply chains of each intertwined.
I’ve written elsewhere that NATO logistics troops should be positioned in Poland (some are definitely already there) and they should be responsible for packing into Shipping containers all tank related supplies of one tank type for express delivery directly to the unit using that model. This prevents the Ukrainian supply system of having to catalog, store, and deliver thousands of different parts. They would eventually take this on themselves, but until they are ready it should all be handled in Poland. This wouldn’t help with volume of supply, but would decrease complexity impact on Ukraine by some amount.
The REALLY odd thing about this is that NATO has repeatedly attempted over the years to standardize weapon systems amongst the different countries to share as many parts and ammo as they could for this very occasion. That a non-NATO member is now tasked with resolving all that interoperability (or non-interoperability) is fascinating. When originally designed, the thought would be that an out-of-ammo American unit of Abrams in West Germany facing against invading Soviets could get ammo from a nearby German unit in desperate situations. Now one country is facing a desperate situation and will give a real life example of how well all that work by NATO did, or didn’t, go. That the country using NATO’s system is a former Soviet republic just cranks up the weirdness.
So what can Ukraine do to mitigate some of this? First, there’s always the chance that the Abrams will be delivered and ready long after the Leopard and Challengers are already being used. So combining all three may never happen until after all the heavy lifting is already done. But let’s assume that all three are “ready” in a few months. Ready here being a relative term. No one should expect a level of competency with them for normal NATO training levels. Ukraine is desperate for them and will most likely rush them into service hoping to improve and learn as they go.
A version of the following has been proposed by myself and others, including 22Trucks (Daily Kos user). 22Trucks posts a lot so I couldn’t track down the exact comment so please forgive me if I misrepresent. But the essential idea is to use NATO tanks as the Tip of the Spear to lead off a large attack. Run these tanks for the first three days of the offensive until they run dry or break down. Have Ukraine’s T-72s ready to exploit the big hole the NATO tanks just made. Then Ukraine collects the NATO tanks for an extended repair and maintenance period to get ready to start the next offensive. If Abrams AND Leopards are both available Ukraine could go with 3 waves, an Abrams opener for two days, Leopards starting day 3, and T-72 replacing them on day 5. Either that or Abrams could begin one offensive with T-72 follow up while Leopards get ready somewhere else for a second offensive or a different prong of the same offensive.
In any event, Ukraine will need to get creative to reduce the impact of complexity on their logistical system. But in the long run, provided they get through this next part well enough, having all three tanks will be a boon to Ukraine. They will want to eventually simplify to just one system, but they will have test driven all three in serious combat to determine which one they wish to continue to go with. Instead of being saddled with a legacy decision made essentially by NATO, as they prepare their own future tanks purchases they are not stuck dealing with Germany. As they get proficient with the Abrams, US reticence to providing them should decrease. Or, Ukraine could decide to partner with the United Kingdom with going to Challenger 3s.
A partnership with the UK may give Ukraine more input into design considerations for what they are looking for. It might also be easier to get a licensing deal to build Challenger 3s in Ukraine. Furthermore, Ukrainian experience with all three systems will put Ukraine in a position to come up with truly innovative designs of future tanks.
And primarily, Ukraine will not be stuck with Germany as the supplier of their long term main battle tank. For whatever reasons, while Germany has provided a great amount of help to Ukraine which should not be forgotten, hesitancy around the Leopard can not be ignored with regards to long term reliability of supply. All along I’ve been a proponent of the Abrams mostly because of this point and that there are many more Abrams. If Ukraine already has Abrams it becomes much easier for them to get more as they show they can use them. Even with a fully cooperative Germany, the total number of Leopards is limiting to Ukraine unless Germany decides to increase production. Ukraine should really have 500 Leopards, which is roughly a seventh of all Leopards ever produced (~3600). The first donated 100 will be relatively easy compared to getting another 400. The US has the stocks to give 500 Abrams (albeit at a large cost).
So while Ukraine has inherited a logistical nightmare due to weird German decisions, in the end it should work in Ukraine’s favor.
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